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Fires threat rises in East Gippsland and Alpine communities with emergency evacuations

Saturday January 11, 2020 - 02:57 EDT
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A number of fires burning in Victoria's High Country have flared up to an emergency level today. - ABC licensed

Firefighters brace for a night of dangerous conditions in Victoria's Alpine region, where erratic winds could push blazes burning around Mount Buffalo towards the tourist town of Bright.

A emergency warning was also issued just before 8:00pm for a grassfire burning towards the southern edge of Wodonga, but that had been downgraded to an advice warning overnight.

The nearby townships of Wandiligong and Harrietville were largely evacuated earlier in the day, as the huge Abbeyard bushfire threatened the High Country communities.

Corryong, Cudgewa, Tintaldra, Towong and neighbouring communities have also come under intense threat from a huge blaze that has already destroyed livestock and homes in the area.

As of 3:00am, there was one emergency warning for Dinner Plain and 16 watch and act alerts for the state's east.

In East Gippsland, authorities are concerned about bushfire emergencies around Buchan, Cann River, Omeo, Swifts Creek and Combienbar.

Victoria's bushfires have destroyed or damaged 286 homes and more than 400 other buildings, but many properties are yet to be assessed.

A south-westerly wind change swept across Victoria on Friday night, and Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said communities across the state's disaster zone needed to remain vigilant.

Mr Crisp said the bushfire-affected parts of the state were entering a "critical" window as the cool change brings gusty winds that will fuel erratic fire behaviour.

He said firefighters were keeping "a very close eye on Bright", where an emergency warning was issued due to fears of spot fires starting in the Buckland and Wandiligong valleys and heading north-east.

Emergency services have brought supplies including food, satellite phones, baby formula and torches into Bright and Harrietville, in case they become isolated in the next 48 hours.

Hume incident controller Paul King said a stretch of fire spreading over the southern edge of Mount Buffalo could cause ember attacks, putting Bright "potentially in the firing line".

He said it was probably "in the lap of the gods" as to whether the historic Mount Buffalo Chalet would survive.

Efforts were made to set up retardant lines around the tourism icon earlier in the day.

East Gippsland community turns down rescue

Rain has begun to move across East Gippsland this evening, offering some hope to communities battling emergency-level bushfires in the region.

Earlier, residents in the East Gippsland community of Combienbar turned down an offer to be flown out of danger as an emergency warning was issued for a grassfire threatening the settlement.

Authorities were planning to use a helicopter to fly people out of the town from Combienbar Bridge after an evacuation notice was issued.

But Orbost incident controller Nigel Brennan told ABC Gippsland none of the five people spoken to in the settlement accepted the offer of a helicopter out.

"We're in a unique situation where aircraft were available to evacuate community members from Combienbar," he said.

"The residents out there have made a very clear-cut decision to stay."

Wind change will make further air rescues impossible

Mr Brennan said Combienbar Valley was an unsafe location and he did not know how well prepared residents were to defend their homes and lives.

An Australian Defence Force (ADF) spokesman said when the wind picked up, evacuations via helicopter would not be possible.

"There will be no chance of air evacuations until the wind calms down," he said.

and authorities urged people in the declared disaster zones to leave the area.

The state of disaster covers East Gippsland, the Alpine region and the state's north-east.

Emergency warnings have been issued for Swifts Creek and Omeo as erratic winds bring gusts of up to 100 kilometres per hour to the region.

Severe thunderstorms are expected to bring between 15 and 20 millimetres of rain per hour, which could cause landslips along the Great Alpine Road.

Temperatures in East Gippsland rose sharply on Friday, with Orbost already hitting 40 degrees Celsius, before the cool south-westerly change began to make its way across the state.

Fire threatens Buchan

A bushfire burning near Buchan, , flared to emergency level shortly after midday and a last-minute evacuation message was issued to residents in the area.

Buchan East resident Janice Coates told ABC Gippsland she was on her verandah watching for smoke with her poddy calf called Miracle.

She said she had run out of water.

"We pump from the river for water for our stock, when the power went off we had no way of pumping water," she said.

"Now that the power is back on, we're trying to get the pump going and get the tanks refilled, but the tanks are empty."

On New Year's Eve when the fires first came through Buchan, Ms Coates and her husband managed to save their house and sheds.

"We just don't want to lose what we saved on New Year's," she said.

"We were on the property [on New Year's Eve] for six hours."

Ms Coates said she was exhausted and had not slept properly in days.

Snow machines protect Alpine infrastructure

Residents in the zone of the Abbeyard fire, burning in the Alpine region, have been told to conserve tap water so the towns "don't run out of water before a fire front arrives".

Mount Hotham Resort Management Board chief executive Jon Hutchins said his team had been clearing vegetation and putting snow machines around critical sites.

"In the ski resort here we've had all our snow guns in position which create a fog for any ember attack," he said.

"They also create dampness on the ground so the embers can't take off or take hold."

The machines were positioned around vital infrastructure such as pumps, gas works, and sewerage works and areas of the environment critical to native and threatened species.

"It's funny when you think just over a month ago we had just over a foot of snow at the resort and now we've got bushfires," he said.

Despite warnings, many are choosing to stay

On Thursday, authorities urged people who believed they were safe to stay in their community because it had already been hit by fires to reconsider.

"I would strongly recommend that those people do evacuate if they're in a high-risk area," Bairnsdale incident controller Brett Mitchell said.

Chrissy McKimmie lives on a dairy and beef farm just outside Corryong with her husband and two adult children.

The fire ripped through the McKimmie family's farm the night before New Year's Eve, wiping out about 95 per cent of their land.

"We had warnings text to us today but we've burnt everywhere around, it couldn't possibly burn us again. We feel safe," Ms McKimmie said.

She said other dairy farmers in the area were also likely to stay to ensure their cows continued to produce milk.

"You really can't leave dairy farms and if you have a chance to save your house … some people think it's possible."

Firefighter loses finger saving cow

George Kucka has been a CFA firefighter for 23 years and said the recent fires were "like looking into the jaws of a dragon".

Last Monday, Mr Kucka was the strike team leader for a Corryong group of five tankers that were protecting the Walwa community.

"It was an inferno. We had 60-kilometre winds blowing embers everywhere, spot fires all around us. It burnt within metres of the houses."

The team managed to save houses, but nothing else was left.

"Not a blade of grass on the ground, the stock are struggling. All our feed is gone, communications are gone, no power."

The following day, Mr Kucka lost part of his finger trying to save a cow that was trapped.

"Sadly, if you don't smile, you cry. And that's pretty much how it is."

He said Friday would be "awful and dangerous" but was hopeful the town would recover.

"It brings out the best in people and the worst in people, but mostly the best."

Others will not be returning

The Mathews family fled their home at Newmerella, near Orbost, on December 29 when the fire raged through the East Gippsland region.

They have moved four times in the last 10 days but have finally found refuge with their 10 children at Gippsland Grammar's boarding house in Sale.

The move has been particularly difficult for the children, four of whom are on the autism spectrum, and another who is intellectually disabled.

Their mother, Natasha, said the constant upheaval had caused them significant angst.

"A lot of children with autism, they might have a tent they go to or a calming place or somewhere that just about every parent with autism has set up in their home for their children, because it means that they can regulate their emotions a lot easier," she said.

"We don't have that, because we're constantly moving.

"So we have a child that honestly has hit himself hundreds and hundreds of times in his head and is having meltdowns constantly. We have another one that's got constant stomach pains and stuff and has gone from being a gentle boy to pinching and biting us, because he's not coping and we can't do anything to stop it.

"We're powerless to be able to change it until we get home because their safe place is at home."



© ABC 2020

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